“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”-Marcus Garvey
Fitness is a fascinating activity, hobby, career, and sport. It infiltrates so much of our life, but most know so little of the history of fitness. How the history has shaped what we think of today, how it has been romanticized, how our thought processes are governed by things that may, or may have occurred because so few know the real history.
Learning some of the history of fitness has become more and more of a passion of mine. Wanting to learn our history is about learning truths. What was REALLY intended, meant, and done in the past and how it dictates what we THINK of today.
Trying to study the history of fitness should also be done so that we can be better today. Investigating the past has been a very eye opening endeavor. Especially, when so much of the industry wants to say things like, “nothing is new” and “it has always been done this way.” We get to really ask the question, “has it?!”
A great example of the nostalgia we have in fitness is the Clean When we think of powerful and strength exercises in the weight room the Clean seems to be an obvious go to in our programs. Cleans are strongly defended as one of the most functional exercises one can perform, that is when it comes to the barbell. Yet, when it comes to our history of strength, Cleans have rarely been exclusive to that of a barbell.
Is the barbell the ultimate Clean? Before we can have such a discussion, we have to know what is a Clean? When I ask most coaches this question they give me a detailed breakdown of the barbell Clean. As much as I appreciate their in-depth response, that isn’t what a Clean is and we can only have this conversation if we do know a little history.
A bit over one hundred years ago, “weightlifting competitions” were VERY different. There were eight events that athletes competed in…
-Right Arm Snatch
-Left Arm Snatch
-Right Arm Jerk
-Left Arm Jerk
-Right Arm Swing
-Left Arm Swing
-Two Arm Press
-Two Arm Jerk (1).
We could have a whole discussion on this topic alone, but what we can obviously see is that weightlifting now and then was a totally different sport. In just a bit over one hundred years the sport went from eight to two lifts as well as techniques and tools completely changing as well. So, I guess things haven’t always been the same and there are some things that are new!
Let’s get to the Clean though, what IS a Clean? Originally the definition of a Clean was bringing the weight from the ground to the chest without touching the body (1). This is important to understand for two reasons. The first being that there were many times that different competitions allowed a Continental Clean was allowed (resting the weight on the body as you raise it up the body). In fact, Cleaning implements like logs, stones, and kegs, generally require a Continental Clean, not the Olympic lifting Clean. Is one better or another? Do they provide different stimuli?!
Even in Weightlifting, techniques changed over time. For example, it wasn’t uncommon to see athletes split clean a weight instead of the squat clean that many think of today. This means that the modern Clean is maybe 70 years old. In that time techniques, equipment, and intent has changed quite a bit.
Knowing the history of the Clean can also be important because understanding such a definition means that being able to Clean MANY different implements and styles as long as we have the same intent in mind. Having more of this type of diversity can be a better representation of the functional fitness because every type of Clean and implement we use teaches us something unique about movement.
The “Odd” Clean
Having been someone that competed in both Weightlifting and Strongman, I can tell you the lessons one can learn in both cleaning a barbell and other implements, especially odd objects. Many might naturally believe that anyone that can Clean a barbell can be successful at any other form of Clean.
I learned that wasn’t necessarily true in learning to Clean steel logs, stones, tires, and sandbags. That means training unique ranges of motion and muscles you may have not known you had! The benefit is that the broadly you train your body, the better you have carry over to things you may have not expected.
One of the largest boosts to my deadlift was the initial weeks that I performed Strongman type of training. Loading my body in new ways, building new patterns, and training those “hidden” muscles had my deadlift go up by about 40 pounds in less than six weeks. That was huge for me at the time!
So, should you just try to Clean different objects? There is definitely value in doing so, but I do believe that tools besides the barbell don’t get the respect of the barbell because we don’t put the thought and programming behind them as we do the barbell. If this article can do anything, hopefully it is changing how you see the value of such other forms of weight training!
The Ultimate Sandbag Clean
Of all the implements that I lifted over time, my favorite did become the sandbag. In one part due to the many different ways you could use the same implement. The second being the love that many old time lifters had for sandbags.
In the famous book, Dinosaur Training, Brooks Kubik states, “You feel sore as you do because the bags (sandbags) worked your body in ways you could not approach with a barbell alone. You got into the muscle areas you normally don’t work. You worked the “heck” out of the stabilizers.” (2)
Sandbags have a long history with martial artists and wrestlers in building their dynamic strength and part of the legendary endurance that many of these athletes possessed. In John Jesse’s famous book, “The Encyclopedia of Wrestling Conditioning”, he explains, “Sandbags over 100 pounds are awkward to handle and provide a true test of all-around strength, particularly in lifting them overhead or bringing them to the shoulder with one hand. Some of the old-time strongman wrestlers would shoulder a 180 to 220-pound sack of grain to the shoulder with one hand and then walk several hundred yards with the bag on their shoulders. A few were capable of pressing the same bag overhead with one hand after bringing it to the shoulder. (3)”
What makes the Ultimate Sandbag such a great tool to Clean? You might expect me to speak about instability, but that is a really misunderstood concept that I will explain further. What makes the sandbag such an amazing tool to Clean is the many different ways we can Clean using just one implement. The way we can train the body in many different ranges of motions, postures, positions, and angles.
We love to say that the Barbell Clean is a very functional exercise and that may be true but to a more limited degree than we may believe. That is because all of the power and strength we build is done in the same position and with a perfectly balanced tool. Does this make the Barbell Clean a “bad exercise”? Of course not, possibly overvalued though.
The BIGGEST difference that one will find with a Ultimate Sandbag is that the leverage is completely different. More than instability, we have this leverage factor that messes with many lifters. Remember, in a base Clean position, the load of the sandbag isn’t shifting much because it is moving completely vertically. What makes it so much challenging is the leverage.
When you grab onto the barbell you hold onto the weight right through the center of the mass of the object. Meaning that as your hands move, the weight moves with you. Beginning to Clean a sandbag, you grab very far away from the center of mass of the object. This becomes more dramatic as you get to heavier sandbags because sandbags also have a dimensional component that barbells do not.
This also means squat cleaning a sandbag of any significant weight is very challenging. That difference in leverage makes it very hard to “get underneath” the weight and so most have to create a longer pull of the Ultimate Sandbag. Such a thing can be really great in emphasizing the posterior chain and explosiveness of the body.
DVRT Ultimate Sandbag Training allows us to Clean from positions that are hard normally in the gym, but happen in real life all the time.
While some may ask about grabbing onto the sandbag itself, that is more of a grip exercise than a lower body power drill. We can use this strategy in some of the upcoming progressions we will discuss though. However, performing the Ultimate Sandbag Clean in the manner I just described actually makes the weight feel heavier because of the leverage that is created.
Making the Clean More Functional?
We acknowledged that the Clean in most forms happens in the same stance, same position, with the load moving the same line all the time. Such training is called “functional”, but the reality is in life such things rarely happen. More times than not we have to create great force in a wide array of positions and postures, more importantly, we also have to learn how to ABSORB force in the same way.
What I really love about the Ultimate Sandbag is the options to progress any exercise in so many different ways. Most people would probably see the time consuming method of changing the actual load of the sandbag as a negative. It is a problem, if you approach the sandbag as a barbell. However, if we look at the unique nature of the sandbag we see we have way more options available to us to create smarter movements and make the same weight feel heavier. In fact, this is a very old time strongman technique of making the same weight become more challenging. When metal was very expensive, it may have not been practical for athletes to have such tiny increments of weight or elaborate gyms. Using a variety of methods to make the same weight feel more challenging to lift was a great asset and problem solving strategy!
Change Body Position
Probably the MOST eye opening challenge for most people in lifting sandbags is when we make them assume postures and positions they were not familiar with trying to be strong in before. These changes of body position are not only a way to expose some of our weaknesses, but to also make our Cleans feel more progressive in load. Here is a way we progress body position over time.
Holding Position Changes
One of the most frustrating thing for lifters is when they are taken out of their element. When we take them away from “perfectly balanced” environments, people really learn a lot about their movement and functional strength. A simple way of accomplishing this is by changing how we hold and position the Ultimate Sandbag during our lifts. You can see just SOME of the options below.
Putting Practice into Programs
I honestly believe that the lack of use of sandbags in strength training programs comes from not knowing how to optimize their progressions and programming. People try to use them like barbells and well, they aren’t barbells. Their unique options need to be featured in a good strength training program. How so?
There are plenty of options but here are just a few…
Periodize the Week
Since each type of Ultimate Sandbag Clean offers a different stress, that also means their intensity can change. So, we can take the idea of periodization and simply apply it in the following format. Especially if we look at a simple heavy to light cycle.
Heavy: Bear Hug Clean
Moderate: Sprinter Front Loaded Clean
Light: Lateral Step Clean
Changes Within Workouts
Instead of trying to change the load of the sandbag to adjust for the accumulating fatigue we get during training, we can change some of these other variables. So, a sandbag Clean series in a workout could look like the following WITHOUT changing the weight! In this case we move from the most complex to simplest.
Set 1: MAX Lunge Clean
Set 2: Rear Step Clean
Set 3: Walking Cleans
Some may instantly notice that the options of Cleaning an Ultimate Sandbag to be immense. That MIGHT be the idea that captures you the most and motivates you to add sandbag Cleans to your training. My long-term hope is that you see that we can actually make training more specific to an individual and remove much of the “cookie cutter” approach that frustrates so many in fitness. Even in group training, we can apply the specific needs of the individual to better movements!
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